When it comes to feathering your impending or newly empty nest, you might want to start with a nice crisp layer of thank-you letters.
I started figuring this out in 2016. It was the year I turned 50, and I decided to commemorate the milestone by writing one gratitude letter each week to someone who had helped, shaped, or inspired me to that point in my life.
Every Friday afternoon as the sun went down, I’d fire up my “Thank-You Letter” Word doc, add a new page, and start typing: to a family member, friend, teacher, boss, doctor, mentor. I’d try to fill the page with specific details of my gratitude, the things they’d brought into my life and how those things impacted me.
As time passed, I realized there were people who had shaped me through their negative examples, or exes and former friends whose lasting impact I wanted to acknowledge but with whom I didn’t necessarily want to be in touch. That’s when I decided that sending the letters was optional. It paved the way for me to eventually write thank-you letters to a whole slew of formative entities in my life that lack a mailing address: favorite authors who had died in the 19thcentury, concepts like “The Live Music Industry,” and hobbies like hiking and reading.
Each time I wrote a letter, I experienced a physiological response I later learned is called “elevation.” Happiness researchers have quantified the phenomenon: by expressing an authentic sense of gratitude, you basically reset your parasympathetic nervous system, which can create a feeling of warmth in your chest cavity and make you feel calmer, more centered, less anxious.
What was particularly interesting to me is captured in the researchers’ adage, “the neurons that fire together wire together.” Turns out, you can teach your brain to focus more on positive things around you for which to be grateful by…focusing on the positive things around you for which you are grateful.
What started off as an exercise in acknowledging my good fortune quickly became a means of not cratering during a particularly trying year. First, my dad passed away unexpectedly. Three weeks later we dropped our eldest daughter off at college, three thousand miles away from home. And all of this took place against the backdrop of a presidential election campaign that had me waking up with a headache and clenched jaw each morning.
Writing those letters felt like it rewired me to focus on the positive, to forgive more easily, to feel connected to others at a time when the national discourse was divided and angry. As one of the happiness researchers I interviewed afterward said, “If you could sell gratitude as a pill, you’d be very wealthy.”
But what only began to dawn on me this fall after our younger daughter, too, left for college, was that writing thank-you letters was a valuable tool for navigating the transition to an empty nest with relative equanimity.
Sure, I still sit on the girls’ beds occasionally, sighing and staring into the middle distance, and answer any call/text/FaceTime from them like my hair is on fire. But writing those letters – and keeping a copy of each one of them – gave me a tactile, lasting reminder of all the ways I’d been held up by a mosaic of support over the years.
With each letter, I reminded myself I would not be alone after the girls left for college. As I had unwittingly documented through my letters, I still had people around me who cared enough to (take your pick): bake me a noodle kugel when my dog died, go dancing to ‘80s alternative music with me on a Saturday night, give me advice about career strategy and consulting rates. I had 19th century authors’ books to reread, and live concerts to go to, and hikes to take. And with my nest empty, I had more time to do all those things.
Writing gratitude letters can be a powerful practice in recalling the multi-faceted person you are independent of your job as a parent, and that can be a helpful first step to designing what the rest of your life should look like. It’s a shortcut to strengthening friendships to make them deeper, richer, and more meaningful when you may finally have more time to devote to them. And it’s a way of reminding yourself that you have been connected and supported through difficult times in the past, reassuring on the days that empty nesting feels challenging.
And all it takes is a simple piece of paper and a pen to get started.
Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, US Magazine, The Rumpus, and The Toast. She’s been recognized as a Voice of the Year in the Humor Category by BlogHer and was the inaugural champion of Oakland’s Literary Death Match. She covers “the years between being hip and breaking one” at MidlifeMixtape.com and on the Midlife Mixtape Podcast, available on all major podcast platforms. Nancy’s book, The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time, is forthcoming from Running Press in December 2019. More at www.DavisKho.com.